What is the difference between cacao vs. cocoa powder?

Written by melissa martinez
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What is the difference between cacao vs. cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder and cacao are not the same thing (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

The words "cacao" and "cocoa" are often used interchangeably, but this usage is wrong. Cacao and cocoa are substances derived from the same source, but what happens to them after harvesting is quite different. These differences affect taste, texture and usage, making cacao and cocoa very different from each other.


Cacao is the name given to the cacao tree that houses pods and beans that are also referred to as cacao. The beans can be removed and turned into various other items, including cocoa powder, cocoa butter and dark chocolate. If a dark chocolate bar says "70% cacao" this means that 70 per cent is cacao and the other 30 per cent is sugar. The higher the cacao content, the more rich the chocolate taste. Chocolate with less cacao will be sweeter but not as dark and the chocolate flavour won't be as strong.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is derived from the cacao tree, specifically the pods. The cacao pods are opened and the beans inside are extracted. The beans are then sent to a plant where they are processed to remove part of the natural fat (called cocoa butter). They are then roasted, winnowed and pressed. The pressing removes what is left of the cocoa butter, leaving behind a cake-like substance that is pulverised. The result after pulverising is cocoa powder.

Cacao vs. Cocoa Powder

Broken down, cacao refers to either the tree, beans or pods of the cacao tree that are raw and unprocessed, while cocoa powder is the processed and refined version of the exact same plant. Though they are not the same, they are also not mutually exclusive, as cocoa powder cannot be made without cacao.

Ways to Use Each

Cacao is used to make cocoa butter and cocoa powder. These two ingredients, in turn, are used to make various chocolate products after being processed in a factory. The higher the cacao content is in the chocolate products, the more intense it will taste. Cocoa powder is also used to make chocolate products where a sweeter taste is desired rather than the more intense flavour of cacoa. Though they both have their uses, cocoa powder is much more common and is a staple in many pantries.

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